Come to me with all your hopes and fears
All you poets and pioneers
Come and give me your finest years and
I can offer you glory
Learn to thrive on my pulse and swell
Learn the secrets I yearn to tell
Find your heaven or face your hell
Everyone has a story…
Everyone Has A Story – Rosabella Gregory, City Stories
While all plays deal with with telling of some sort of story, there are some that are meta-narratives – plays about the telling of stories. Three years ago at the Almeida Theatre, Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns ran – a metatextual play, set in the not-too-distant future where the world without electricity (and therefore deprived of television/cinema, etc). Within this world, there was a ‘spiritual’ hunger for telling of stories – as valuable a resource as food and shelter, a way of orally passing on history and making sense of the ‘present’ world. Which leads us to The Treatment…
Originally performed in 1993, Martin Crimp’s The Treatment is also set in a world where people’s own stories are a valuable commodity. Anne (Aisling Loftus) meets narrative ‘facilitators’ Jennifer and Andrew (Indira Varma, Julian Ovenden) – a husband and wife team who secure from her an original, ‘true’ story. Excited by this prospect, they take her short story, her ‘treatment’ to John (Gary Beadle) – an actor/dramaturg who tests the veracity of the story and its dramatic worth. Thrown into the mix is Clifford (Ian Gelder) – a writer who has supplied a story to ‘the facilitators’ which featured voyeurism. It’s generally agreed the projects should be merged and everything for a brief period is fine. Then comes the snag – John reckons Anne’s not telling the whole truth, as elements in her story ‘don’t make any sense’…
While elements of The Treatment feel straightforward and familiar, there are enigmas that Crimp throws to keep the audience guessing. Anne’s anxious demeanour means she is never at ease with her surroundings (her reaction in the taxi scene is priceless!) and while she’s supposedly estranged from her husband Simon (Matthew Needham), there are moments where they very much share a strange bond. In contrast to Anne, Simon’s antipathy towards stories, theatre and the Arts is as articulate as it is vehement and damning, likely to make everyone who sees the show think twice about whether there is any truth or basis to his hostility.
Varma and Ovenden bring much of the energy to the play, their ‘machinations’ reminiscient of Merteuil and Valmont in Les liaisons dangereuses. The allusions continue with Andy falling for Anne after he’s seduced her – a parallel to the fate of Valmont and the virtuous Madame de Tourvel.
Meanwhile, Gary Beadle’s John remind us how ethnicity plays a big part with the casting of characters that have negative traits and with Ian Gelder’s Clifford, the lack of respect afforded to the literary talent of yesteryear.
With what we know today, the use of ‘tweakable real life’ as a source of entertainment isn’t so far-fetched, as it’s been the stable of ‘reality TV’ for the past 17 years. However, where this play is truly poignant is the way it correlates with the authenticity and truthfulness of news reported today. In a world of Alt-Facts, picking and choosing what’s real and true is a subjective affair.
© Michael Davis 2017
The Treatment runs at Almeida Theatre until 10th June 2017.